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Concert Review: Into The Abyss, With a Return Ticket

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
The Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique goes beyond the Fantastique.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Concert Review: Into The Abyss, With a Return Ticket

Historian at work: Sir John Eliot Gardiner leading the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique.
Photo from the official website of The Monteverdi Choir © 2018 SDG

The Symphonie-fantastique, written in 1830 by Hector Berlioz, is in some ways a victim of its own success.
It is programmed somewhere every season, allowing a large symphony orchestra to wow its faithful subscribers with Berlioz' five-movement journey into phantasmagoric landscapes. It is literally an orchestral head trip: from the passions and dreams of a young man to two nightmare movements that are (both) arguably among the greatest tour de force pieces to be written in the 19th century. On Monday night, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique put this much-loved war-horse work in context, programming it alongside its  little-known sequel Lélio.
Hold up a minute, Mr. Superconductor. There's...a sequel?
Yep. Berlioz, not content with taking the listener on a roller coaster journey into his own fevered brain, wrote Lélio, or A Return to Life in 1832. In this little-known work, the musical ideas and night terrors of the Symphony are put to gentle rest through the power of music as mental and emotional restorative. Although the ambitious composer intended for these two large works to be played in the same evening (as was done Monday night), Lélio is now a bit of a curiosity, known only to ambitious conductors and Berlioz cultists who have read the composer's Memoirs at least once through.
The Orchestre, which was founded in 1989 by Sir John Eliot to play 19th century works on instruments from that era, brought a very different sound to the familiar opening of the Fantastique. With cat-gut strings and old-style winds, the sweeping romantic melodies of Reveries-passions sounded spectral and nervous, a young man pulling at his tie worriedly as he spots his beloved. Four harpists were added for the second movement Un Bal, their instruments placed on either side of the conductor's dais: an intriguing visual that also helped the tricky balances in this movement.
The third movement started with the lamenting sound of echoing shepherd's pipes (played on woody oboes) sounded onstage and off, and the movement proper, sounding positively spooky  for once hinted at the stormy weather to come. Thunder rolled from a quartet of timpanists, who skilfully created the illusion of the storm coming ever closer to the listener. The solo oboe repeated its sad little song, unanswered, the tension building in the air. The audience leant forward, ready for the familiar catalog of opium-induced horrors to play out.
These two famous movements were played as New York has never heard them before. The famous Marche au supplice was brutal and unrelenting, driven by thunderous plucked basses and gleeful, morbid brass. Each answering phrase was underlined by blare of the trombones and the raucous blast of the ophicleide (a predecessor of the more civilized tuba.) In the finale, set at a witches' Sabbath in which the narrator's objet d'amour/i> appears as the bloody Whore of Babylon, the use of period instruments unleashed an even more extreme effect. The ophicleide played in tandem with itstechnological predecessor, the wooden serpent. The famous Dies irae has never sounded so ominous or otherworldly. Coupled with the mad cavorting of the strings and winds, this finele overcame its spook-house reputation to strike real terror in the imaginative listener. 
Lélio, which followed after the interval, was a very different work, although constructed as a direct sequel to the more familiar Fantastique. Simon Callow took the part of a narrator, quite literally working through his isolation and depression through Berlioz' text. This would introduce six musical numbers, settings of Goethe, Shakespeare and others, for various combinations: tenor Michael Spyres with a Victorian-sized Steinway piano, an ominous setting accompanying a scene from Hamlet. Then, baritone Ashley Riches sang with a rowdy chorus of brigands, who thrashed about in good fellowship on the choral stand as if they were in a Verdi opera.
It's sort of amazing that Lélio remains an obscurity. It is a work well ahead of its time in its combination of spoken narrative with orchestral music, choral work and chanson. Mr. Callow's narrative turned toward the light in the second half, leading into a lovely duet for Mr. Spyres with an onstage harpist and the climax of the evening, a thunderous setting for the full chorus and the piano (four hands) of music inspired by The Tempest. Berlioz, ever the maverick, ended with a few final words for Mr. Callow's narrator, and one last tortured reminder of the idéee-fixe. After all, obsession and the recovery from it, is what this evening was all about.
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